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The church is having an identity crisis – and like any teenager whose hormones are running their lives, we have been doing some pretty wild things in the service of trying to figure out who we are. This became clear to me after I recently read a satirical article entitled, “Fifty proven ways to revive mainline churches” and realized that many Episcopal parishes I know have actually attempted quite a few of these tongue-in-cheek suggestions, including holding Bible study in the local pub, working the phrase “social justice” into every other announcement, and trying to tone down all that “Jesus-talk.” Although, in all fairness, I would like to point out that I only colored my hair to match the liturgical calendar once – and it was Pentecost, after all. But it cannot be denied that the church as a whole is exhibiting behavior that looks a lot like teenage rebellion.
That’s because teenagers aren’t the only ones who struggle with the task of figuring out who they are and what they should be doing with their lives. “An identity crisis may occur at any time in your adult years when you’re faced with a challenge to your sense of self.” I think it’s fair to argue that that’s what’s happening in the Episcopal Church right now. On the one hand, we’re no longer the denomination of the status-quo supporting, white, middle-class, but we’re also (by and large) not the tattooed, profanity-using, skinny-jean wearing iconoclasts some people think we need to become. Personality theory says that successfully riding out the rough waves of identity development requires a balance of two things: a strong sense of “commitment” to a belief system and the active questioning of those beliefs by experimenting with other ideas and behaviors. So if the church is having an identity crisis, it stands to reason that we’re not doing enough of one of those things – either we’re not committed enough to “traditional” biblical Christian teaching – or are we not trying hard enough to introduce new ideas and worship trends to our services. Are we low on commitment or experimentation?
Maybe we’re just not getting the balance right. Personality theorists would tell us that we actually need to be “high” on both. Faith, after all, is synonymous with the firm sense of belief that identifies people as “high” on commitment – but the church also needs the spirit of exploration and interrogation that gives true religion its redemptive power. It is what we do with our faith that matters, because it is in sharing with those who are different than we are that we learn and grow.
There is, says Krista Tippett, “a lot of beauty and wisdom and inquiry and virtue about critical life-giving aspects [of the church] that other institutions [can’t] bring into conversation” with spiritual seekers. At the same time, those of us who have that strength of commitment founded on a lifetime of church teaching need to be confronted with the moral imagination and integrity of those who are not religious – the so-called “nones” – because they question the very idea of religions that say they speak in the name of God but whose voices are “strident, hateful, [and] polarizing.”  The truth is that for both individuals and institutions, only those that both maintain a deep and clear sense of who they are so that they can examine and evolve that truth can fully live into the promise of their identity.
This means talking about our faith. It means inviting people in. It means proclaiming the good news – just as Luke tells us Paul did in ancient Macedonia. It may feel intrusive. It may be embarrassing. It may even be frightening – but knowing what it means to be Christian means opening our hearts to others so they can open their hearts to God. C.S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest plain-speaker about Christianity in the 20th century, said, “The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians. There are people…who are slowly ceasing to be Christians, but who still call themselves by that name…[and] there are other people who are slowly becoming Christian, though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are [already] his in a much deeper sense than they…understand.”
It is up to us to help them to understand this attraction and to know it for what it is: a longing for God. Like the psalmist, we must pray that God will let his ways be known upon the earth so that all people may stand in awe of him. But we can’t just pray. We have to actually provide some glimpses of what it is to live in a world fully inhabited by God – what it’s like to live in the kingdom of God.
And the kingdom of God is not built of churches – or at least not church buildings. God has never asked people to build churches. God asks us to be churches. We get so obsessed with things like average Sunday attendance and color-coordinated linens, and whether the grass is growing that I sometimes wonder if Frederick Buechner wasn’t right when he said, “the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away – the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place” – because, really, that’s all we should need.
John’s revelation of the New Jerusalem – the holy city – the kingdom of God – has no temple in it, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty.” It is a place of light and life and healing – a place where all is holy and all is good – including the people. It is a place where nothing is accursed – not because the bad people will be sent to another place – but because all people will be redeemed. Everyone will be good. They won’t be able to help it – because “everyone there is filled full…with goodness as a mirror is filled with light.”
Many people have interpreted today’s gospel reading to mean that Jesus (and, by default, God) will only love you if you obey a certain set of rules. And lots and lots of people believe they can tell you what those rules are – and what will happen to you if you don’t obey them. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Those who love me have to keep my laws.” Jesus tells his disciples that those who love him will keep his word. In other words, if you love Jesus, you cannot help but keep his word. You won’t be able to break his word. And his word is “love.”
The kingdom of God is not about who is right and who is wrong; it is about learning that in God there is no wrong. Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples with some unpassable test or impossible standard. He leaves them with the Holy Spirit – with a counselor – not to haunt them, but to advocate for them – not only to remind them of Jesus’s way, but also to help them to continually grow in grace – to recognize the good and reject the bad – to bring the kingdom of God to these people in this place. He leaves them both the wisdom and the room to grow – to change – and to change the world.
That is the identity of the church – to provide both a foundation of wisdom and the opportunity for growth. The identity of the church is as a community where we can share both our confidence and our fears – a gathering of spiritual seekers who together invite the sacred presence of the Holy Spirit to be among them – a congregation of individuals blessed with the deep peace of Jesus. It is – we are -the bedrock of the kingdom of God. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let those you love be afraid. It will be enough. It is enough. It is, in fact, everything. AMEN.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, April 28, 2016, “Fifty proven ways to revive mainline churches (satire),” Religious Church News.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, “Are you having an Identity Crisis: 4 key ways to identify your identity,” Psychology Today, March 3, 2012.
 Krista Tippett in Boorstein, Michelle, (April 6, 2016), “Acts of Faith: Some are writing obituaries for American religion, Krista Tippet is documenting its revolution,” The Washington Post.
C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity.”